AOI Pro. Inc’s Julie Thomas-Toda: How bowing + manga culture influences storytelling in Japan

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Julia-Thomas-Toda.jpgBorn on one island and now living on another, Julie Thomas-Toda (pictured) left her home of Honolulu, Hawaii in 1991 to join AOI Pro. Inc. in Tokyo.


Back in 1991, very few foreign women were employed in the Japanese advertising industry. Today, as the company’s Creative Producer, AOI Pro. is a leader in cross-cultural advertising, bringing Japanese filmmakers together with international creative professionals.


Next week, she’s bringing three Asian filmmakers to Thailand to join a panel discussion at AdFest 2019: Karina Tiara, a film director, fashion and beauty photographer based between Paris and Milan; Sling Ng, Director at Directors Think Tank in Malaysia and Aki Mizutani, Director/Editor at Cutters Studio in Tokyo.

You were living in Hawaii when you decided to make Japan home 27 years ago. What were your first impressions?

Being born and raised in Hawaii, I had never really experienced the four seasons: winter, spring, summer and fall. To this day, I am still awestruck by the beauty of the cherry blossom trees here in Japan


You know how in the movies the person begins their career in the mailroom? I literally started working at AOI Pro. by doing the company mail every day. That’s where I really improved my kanji reading skills. Then in the summer of 1992, one of our producers came back from Cannes. He gave me all the books written in English including the huge, thick book that listed every film and production company that had work entered into Cannes. Of course, we would buy the big 3/4 inch winners tape. (This was before the internet!)  So, to see these ads from around the world that looked incredibly different from Japanese commercials, I was hooked.


As my interest grew and I gathered my courage, I wrote letters to the companies whose work impressed me the most. I remember one of the first 3/4 inch showreels I had ever received was for the American fashion photographer and director Herb Ritts who I absolutely idolized! Herb Ritts revolutionized fashion photography, and transformed celebrities into icons.


What were the biggest challenges you overcame when you were breaking into Tokyo’s production landscape?

Back in the day, if I walked into a meeting being the only foreigner, everyone was inevitably going to stop and stare.  Out in public, there were often times when Japanese people would be talking about me – thinking that I didn’t know what they were saying.  I always had fun suddenly chiming into their conversation!


My biggest challenge was definitely reading and writing Kanji Chinese characters.  It still is, and I may never master that.


How has Tokyo’s production scene evolved since then?

Sadly, there are still very few female producers and even less working mothers in film production.  Mothers upon returning to work tend to choose careers or positions in companies where their hours are not as hectic.  Culturally in Japan, child rearing is expected of mothers.  Little by little, though, things are changing.


What’s been your proudest achievement at AOI Pro. Inc?

Personally, my proudest achievement is that I was the first mother to ever return to work at AOI Pro. after having a baby. Now, 13 years later we have many more mothers working for us.


Professionally, in regard to an actual production, the most memorable moment by far was when I worked with the world’s greatest living film composer, Ennio Morricone, and the Italian feature film director Giuseppe Tornatore.  When I recall what it was like to be in their presence, I still get goosebumps! “Cinema Paradiso” and “Malena” were two of my all-time favorite films.


Tell us about the directors you’re bringing together for your panel discussion at AdFest next week. What makes them so insightful?

All three of the directors that I will be speaking with originally began their film careers very differently. Karina started her career as a fashion photographer. Sling was an Art Director at an ad agency, and Aki was a creative editor.


Now, they are successfully working as directors in Asia and internationally for a variety of distinctly different markets and clients. I was curious to know in what ways their film craft and aesthetic decisions as a director were influenced knowing that a particular ad was for a specific market.


In what ways do filmmakers adapt their stories to appeal to the culture of the audience?

Have you ever sat watching TV and suddenly an ad comes on that looks nothing like all the other ads? Maybe it was the framing and composition or the color tone, etc.  You can’t quite pinpoint exactly why, but for some reason it doesn’t quite align with the general aesthetic tenets of everything else that you see on TV.


Whatever the reason, however small the noticeable differences might be, you feel that it must have been made by a foreign filmmaker.


Karina gave an interesting example of how she worked on two different chocolate ads, for two different countries, one after the other.  Both required a woman to be eating chocolate.  How the women were shown eating the chocolate varied greatly, as guided by the norms of their intended market. From the choice of cast and their performance, to camera work and lensing, to wardrobe, production design, edit, to music, color and saturation levels, etc.  The idea as a storyboard was similar, and yet the end result was so very different.


So, my big question for them asks: do the visual aesthetics, production techniques, and rules of filmmaking decisions transcend cultural and national differences?  Is there even such a thing as a universal look to an ad?


Do you think film craft in Japan is different to other markets in Asia?

I think that in the past, the differences in film craft were much more pronounced.  Very often a client or creative team would specifically say that they wanted a “foreign” or “European” look to the film.  What that meant exactly is difficult to put in a few short sentences.  Some people will not agree with me, but in my opinion, Japanese ads have the tendency to give the impression of appearing flat.  Specifically the depth of field, everything evenly lit, no dark shadows, the camera locked.  It is very two-dimensional, reminding me of the manga culture that we have here.


There is also the 15-second ad, which dominates TV advertising in Japan.  Every shot needs to invoke quick understanding by the viewer similar to jumping to the next frame in a manga magazine. So, I do feel that the manga culture has influenced how stories have been told here.


What other differences have you observed over the past 27 years living in Japan?

You know how Japanese people bow to each other? It’s not a handshake or hug or kiss on the cheek like you would see in America or many European countries. There is a distinct distance that is kept between two people. Growing up culturally with that distance between people, without a doubt, naturally affects how you approach filmmaking, craft, and storytelling. It influences how a director frames / composes a shot or the way two people interact with each other. It is a very different approach to storytelling.


There is also possibly the factor of genetics.  For example, a light
-eyed person will perceive color very differently from a dark-eyed person. For a light-eyed person, bright colors or the sunlight may hurt their eyes. So when a film is lite or color-corrected, it tends to look like the world that they see and find pleasing through their own eyes. Scientifically I don’t know if this is true, but Japanese ads all seem to have the same color tone, whereas when working with a foreign DOP or colorist for a Japanese ad, the films really stood out.


Another aspect is environment.  Japanese are often born and raised under a central kino-flo light, everything is bright in their homes.  On the other hand, Europeans have lamps in corners of rooms, so there are dark areas.  This is reflective in their approach to filmmaking.  Europeans also tend to use more shadows, muted colors, whereas, the Japanese tend to like everything bright and well lit.  I can continue with many more examples, but at least these give you a few differences to think about.


Comparing ads across Asia, Japanese ads are not as emotional or have family-themed storylines as ads for example from Malaysia or Thailand.


It is important to consider that as we become more globally connected through the internet, these differences that I mentioned above seem to occur less often. Filmmakers are being influenced now by films from all around the world.


·      ‘Beyond Culture, What Influences Film Craft?’ takes place as part of the Craft@ADFEST stream on Wednesday 20th March, 4:50 – 5:25pm.

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